February 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Nashville Mayor Gives the Lowdown on School-Library Partnership

Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean. Photos courtesy of NP

Mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean. Photos courtesy of NPL

As the Mayor of Nashville, I know school libraries matter. I see how they pull a school together. I associate their concrete spaces with more intangible concepts: community, curiosity, and intellectual growth.

In Nashville, a revolutionary program called Limitless Libraries (LL), a collections partnership between Nashville Public Library (NPL) and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), is helping students succeed. In fact, a 2014 report by a well-known researcher, Keith Curry Lance, tied students’ use of LL to increased test scores. While LL has helped improve student performance, it has also inspired another important mission: transforming our school libraries into the coolest spaces at our schools, for students to gather, explore, learn, read, and build 21st-century technology skills.

With $2 million, the city of Nashville has teamed up with NPL and MNPS to renovate four MNPS school libraries participating in the LL program.

I’m proud of the Nashville LL model, which other elected officials and educators can borrow from to serve children in their own communities. Since LL’s inception in 2009, it has served as a model for other cities around the country. To date, 28 other U.S. libraries have contacted NPL’s program organizers to ask them about LL and learn about replicating it in communities from Michigan to Illinois to my home state, Tennessee.

Limitless Libraries


NPL’s director, Kent Oliver, gives remarks at the opening celebration of
the transformed school library at Apollo Middle School in Nashville.

LL is a collaborative program between the Nashville Mayor’s Office, MNPS, and NPL. Through it, Nashville’s students access NPL’s best learning resources without ever leaving campus. From their school libraries, students order books, movies, and music from NPL’s catalog and pick them up following daily school deliveries. Students can also use laptops, e-readers, ESL materials, and academic databases from NPL.

The program has been established in all 128 traditional schools in MSPS, and more than 25,000 students are registered to use LL—15,000 of those who are first-time library users. In 2013, registered users received more than 112,000 books and other items using LL’s courier service.

“Limitless Libraries makes it super easy to get the books I want to read and listen to,” says one MNPS seventh grader. “Being able to read helps me to keep calm in my life when things are feelings out of control.”


Limitless Libraries inspired a prominent business leader in Nashville, John Ingram, to step up in a grand scale and creative way. In 2011, Ingram donated $1 million to the Nashville Public Library Foundation (NPLF) enabling NPL to remodel the school libraries at Hillwood Comp High School and Wright Middle School, both participating in the LL program and both had strong school librarians, engaged principals, and diverse student bodies. With their concrete block walls and “function-only” feel, their library spaces presented a lot of opportunity for change. Now, with better lighting, moveable furniture, reading nooks, and new colors, these spaces are unrecognizable from their old selves.


The modernized school library at DuPont Tyler Middle School in Nashville features a loft space
with games, a makerspace, and video production equipment.

Mr. Ingram’s vision made sense—NPL had already brought expertise in collection and technology development to school libraries, and it was poised to bring its experience in great library design to the mix.

Here’s what life looks like in these flexible-schedule renovated libraries:

  • Student council and other groups work on projects in multipurpose classrooms set off by pull-down garage doors.
  • Kids drop their backpacks into lockers with built-in cell phone chargers before heading to the iPad bar.
  • Friends play chess, produce school newscasts in front of green screens, and edit them in video production booths. They make gadgets on 3D printers and tinker with robotics kits.

Hillwood High School’s renovated library has moveable furniture, laptop bars, and cyber café
spaces, which encourage students to hang out alone or with friends at the school library.

The partnership between LL, MNPS, and my office has transformed four school libraries in total. In 2013, my office allocated $1 million to the transformation of DuPont Tyler Middle School and Apollo Middle Prep, and both school libraries opened in September 2014.

Most importantly, across our school system, students are visiting their school libraries more. They’re staying longer, reading avidly, and borrowing more items.

Takeaways for Other Leaders

One of my favorite parts of my job as mayor has been working with public and school librarians. They are some of the most driven educators in Nashville. Other mayors and elected officials can engage librarians in their community. Getting inspired is the easy part: all you have to do is spend some time with students and librarians in your city or town.

As government leaders, you can encourage creative thought about how school and public libraries can work across departments. You can break down bureaucratic silos that keep educators distanced from one another and inhibit innovation. You can try to prioritize reading and learning in your budgets as you also identify corporate and private citizens who will step up with additional dollars.

Limitless Libraries has changed Nashville’s schools, our students, and our city. A program like it could change yours, too.

Karl Dean is the sixth mayor of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. Hooray forMr Dean Mayor of nashville and LL program between school lubraries and the public libraries I see the students soaring high to get fantastic grades. Thanks Mr Mayor